Sunday, 11 November 2012

Letter from a Legends cop

Letter from Stephen Clark, SAPS Westville (Durban):

In 1990, I read the words, "What is an Urban Legend and where can I buy one?" and looked up, blinking at my dad. I had told him some fantastic story I had heard and he had rolled his eyes, muttered something unintelligible and stomped off to examine his book case.

David Clark (dad) had been a journalist most of his life, so it was not surprising that he had pretty much heard it all before. It was much to his and my great joy that we discovered you, and your excellent writing.

I cant tell you the number of times I've pulled out "Rabbit", "Leopard" or "Ink", calmly flipped through it, held it out and said, "Oh, my! That is and original story you just told me, and it must be true if Shirley at the frikkin tennis club just told you!"

At the moment, I'm a sergeant in the SAPS in Westville. I "do" communications. Hell, I've fought every single damn legend in all of your books. Some, in your latest, "Bin bag" nearly drove me insane. I think I replied using the same, saved, script in response to the colour signals, bin bag, chip in the key ring, the poisoned business card and God knows how many others.

The part I really don't understand is that when you (or I) start to use reason to explain why the story is crap, the teller will happily start filling in the blanks with suppositions and "but what if...". When on occasions I've given up, exasperated, they've actually had the balls to say to me, "Fine, I'll stay enlightened, YOU can ignore the truth!"

A personal contact with an Urban Legend that I participated in happened during the Great Teacher Strike of 2007. Before one marcher had come to our sleepy hollow to disrupt anything, our then station Commander Supt Dion Singh posted a few of us to park outside random schools and just "be visible". I got a Primary School in the center of Westville. I sat on the bonnet of the car, from 9 to 12, read The Mercury, smoked my pipe, chatted to the gardener, got offered tea by the groundskeeper, coke from the secretary and more tea from the principal herself. At quarter to 12, I was in dire threat of being parked in as mommies began arriving to pick up their sprogs at close of school.

The fun started the next day, Saturday. I was at a friend's house in a neighboring suburb. It was his daughter's birthday party. I stood, sipping juice out of a paper cup when a word across the garden caught my attention. One mommy, center of attention, was telling a story. This is how it went:
"They had to evacuate X primary school yesterday! It was a BOMB threat. They had to bring in Police dogs and everything. I wouldn't be surprised if it has something to do with those teachers striking!"

I went into Rottweiler on steroids mode. "WHAT?" I challenged. "How do you know that?"
"Umm.." looking scared, "My friend ABC told me."
"Get her on the phone NOW, I want to talk to her."
"Why?" looking very scared.
So I told her who I was and where I was 24 hours earlier.
She looked even more scared and "Ah, well, I cant remember, maybe it wasn't her."

My main concern wasn't so much that she was talking absolute crap, but that the little disciples she had gathered round would have exploded the story that would have made the Bubonic plague look look like a runny nose. Of course the SAPS would have denied any such thing happened, which would have had the experts nodding their heads and saying, "See, I knew it was true." not caring which school it allegedly happened at, but guaranteed it would have been a Primary School and the "Teachers Strike" would have been a key feature.

Well, the fight between the truth and absolute crap continues.

I've noticed an interesting development in the coloured bottle on the verge story. The common sense Brigade has just managed to quell the legend in the bright light of "criminals are actually allowed to own Blackberrys. They can BBM the info about your house to each other. They don't need a Fanta can. (Well that has started a whole new terror that BB actually supports organised crime because the transmissions are coded and the SAPS cannot trace or intercept them. This hasn't stopped people buying them!)

I got an email warning, DON'T pick up anything on your verge. And it went on to describe how some Drano and other junk in the bottle will fizz and blow your arm off. Except we don't have Drano in South Africa and a friend of mine, who is knowledgeable about these things, told me the chemistry is not completely correct.

Ah well.

Sir, I really enjoy your books. Despite their wide publishing and people like me, your ambassador, there are still the cretins out there who will forward every piece of junk that comes across their Inbox. Thank you for printing the 10 Rules. I will type them out and forward them with your permission.

Please, if you are on Facebook, have a look at Chief Clark's Chirp. Its my page where I publish stories, crime tips, interesting stuff and debunk the latest Urban Legend.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

"Prince of fools" - fake "quote of the century"

The following e-mail doing the rounds in South Africa, aside from circulating among expats and having an irritatingly unlikely headline, rang the urban legend alarm bells because of its unlikely source:


Some  people have the vocabulary to sum up things in a way you can understand them. This quote came from the Czech Republic.  Someone over there has it figured out.

"The  danger to  South Africa  is  not Jacob Zuma but a citizenry capable of entrusting a man like him with the Presidency. It will be far easier to limit and undo the follies of a Zuma presidency than to restore the necessary common sense and good judgment to a depraved electorate willing to have such a man for their president. The problem is much deeper and far more serious than Mr. Zuma, who is a mere symptom of what ails South Africa.  Blaming the prince of the fools should not blind anyone to the vast confederacy of fools that made him their prince. The Republic can survive a Jacob Zuma, who is, after all, merely a fool. It is less likely to survive a multitude of fools such as those who made him their President."

The reality is, you could apply this to any country. Merely change the names. It is usually used by American right-wingers with reference to Barack Obama. The most common Obama version also claims it to be from a Czech newspaper, even though that is also clearly a fake origin. Here is a typical example.

It has been commonly adapted to local politics around the world, and I suspect we'll find the origin is decades or even centuries old.

It's used with local amendments in a left-wing New Zealand blog attacking the Key government, in the comments on an Australian blog entry on carbon tax, castigating the Labor government, and in the Northern Mariana Islands , on what ails their Commonwealth.

It is used without acknowledging the amendments in the comments section of a Nigerian news report, and even in comments on a Lesotho news report,

The quote is given life because it is so easy adapt it to any nation in the throes of political struggle and upheaval, and to any leader who inspires vehement opposition. The ease with which it is justified as usable by critics who acknowledge its potential lack of veracity is summed up in this letter to the editor of the Daily Tribune News in Georgia. "I cannot verify its authenticity but if no one can be found to claim authorship, I will volunteer to do so!!" writes one Elvis D Rush.

Everyone likes a good quote, and everyone repeats a good quote that both reinforces prejudices and declares those prejudices to the world.

The subtext of the South African version is similar to the Obama versions, since it tends to repeat the Czech origin: that even continents away, the follies of our leadership are an embarrassment, and make us the laughing stock of the world. The truth of the matter is that, even in those distant countries, the citizenry tends to be more concerned with the quality of their own leaders than of those ruling over foreign lands.

The beauty of the quote is that it works even without having to invoke foreign sources. This is what makes it so popular in the furthest reaches of the world.

As it is transformed into local variants,  it takes on more and more of the character of an urban legend: its origins become more and more shrouded, and those passing it on argue that, regardless of origin, it remains valid because it is so applicable. However, arguing that a questionable source can be excused by the supposed "truth" of a statement defies logic as well as honesty.

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